Daddy Deadliest

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After they decided that shooting Sheila would be the surest way to earn the bonus, Del Toro had a question: Did anyone have a gun?

Del Toro paged Gonzales the next afternoon. He was near Houston and headed east. A day passed, then at 12:44 p.m. on November 7, Del Toro paged Gonzales again, this time from Greenville, Florida. "Sam, don't ask me any questions," Del Toro said. "It's done."

A day later, Gonzales delivered to Del Toro $3,500 in bills bundled with a rubber band. They had time for one all-night binge of beer and cocaine before Del Toro's girlfriend paged. The cops had found the car. Del Toro headed south on the 4:30 a.m. bus to the Mexican border.

Newscasts soon aired an artist's sketch of Del Toro. Alarmed, Blackthorne and Rocha met at the SilverHorn Golf Club in San Antonio. As it was too cold to play, they huddled on the putting green for a brief exchange.

"He asked what would happen if I got caught. Would I rat him out?" Rocha recalled. "I said, 'I guess we'll find out who our friends are.'"

Within weeks of their arrests, Gonzales agreed to testify against his pals in exchange for an expected 15-year prison sentence. Rocha held out for a deal that would settle related charges in Texas and yield a shorter sentence that would allow him to return to his marriage and still raise his kids.

In turn, prosecutors demanded proof of Blackthorne's involvement. All they had was Rocha's word, while Blackthorne had a high-powered defense lawyer. On-and-off-again negotiations resumed the third day of his trial, January 13, when Rocha again offered to cooperate. The next day jurors waited, unaware that Rocha was being hooked to a polygraph. Based on his statements, an examiner asked three questions. Did Blackthorne tell him to put two bullets in Sheila's head? Did he tell Rocha to kill her? Did Blackthorne specifically say he would pay a $50,000 incentive if Sheila were killed?

Rocha flunked. The trial resumed, and the jury, without learning of the lie-detector test, convicted him the next day.

A day after the verdict, Sarasota's chief prosecutor, Henry Lee, seemed frustrated. He had won a conviction but, in the process, possibly lost an essential witness against Blackthorne. Almost under his breath, he mused to San Antonio Express-News reporter John Tedesco in a courthouse elevator, "I'm not so sure Blackthorne ordered the murder."

Blackthorne, meanwhile, grew bolder in his denials, appearing in May on the CBS news magazine 48 Hours. Nauseated by the public performance, investigators continued to examine Blackthorne.

His first wife told them that his beatings had caused her to have a miscarriage. His second wife recalled a threat laced with a sadistic and familiar theme. She told investigators, "Allen told me that he would hire somebody to physically hurt my children in front of me while I was tied up." It was nasty stuff, but hardly evidence of a murder committed more than a decade later. The case still rested on Danny Rocha's word. Yet Sarasota prosecutors knew him to be a liar, and San Antonio prosecutors had a legal problem. Texas courts would not let a crook such as Rocha testify against a crony unless prosecutors had sufficient proof that what he claimed was true. That proof had eluded investigators from two states for nearly two years.

Ten days before the second anniversary of Sheila's murder, Bexar County authorities met with the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Antonio, knowing that federal courts had lower standards when it came to snitches. Just two months later, the first batch of federal indictments charged the millionaire with interstate domestic violence and murder-for-hire. FBI agents found Blackthorne at a golf course that afternoon. He was jailed without bond. The trial began six months later on Blackthorne's 45th birthday.

Allen Blackthorne entered court on June 5, 2000, his bloodshot eyes skimming the crowd of spectators. His tan had faded, but he looked dapper in a navy blazer and stood tall as federal marshals escorted him to his seat--the one flanked by five defense lawyers and a widely respected jury consultant.

Some of his attorneys had been preparing for this day for more than two years. Because it feared being outgunned, the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Antonio took the unprecedented step of hiring its own jury consultant.

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Maro Robbins